Towards a revitalised London Cycling Network

A guest article by Simon Parker, creator of the London Cycle Map

In the foreword to a book about self-sufficiency, E.F. Schumacher says, “Pioneers are not for imitation, but for learning from. The pioneers show us what can be done, and it is for every one of us to decide what should be done.”

In the post-war period, the undoubted pioneers of the bicycle as a mode of transport are the Dutch. No one has strived harder than they have to make cycling safe, convenient and stress-free. Through the provision of separate cycling facilities at junctions and alongside busy roads, and also through the widespread development of woonerfen (home zones), they are creating an environment which treats children, women, the elderly and the disabled with dignity and respect. As Jim Davis from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain recently pointed out, the key is sustained investment, “progressively reprioritising towns and cities towards the needs of pedestrians and people on bikes.”

Sustainable Safety

For the last twenty years, the Dutch have pursued a policy known as Sustainable Safety. As the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) explains, “Anyone can have an accident. Everybody makes an error now and again; there are more than enough examples. People make errors and the risk of fatal errors increases when people break traffic laws and regulations. This explains the need for safeguards against these errors. This is the Sustainable Safety approach in a nutshell.”

Sustainable Safety, it must be stressed, is a proactive approach, and starts with ‘man as the measure of all things’. The main objectives are preventing severe accidents, and mitigating the worst effects of these accidents as and when they occur. It sets about doing this by recognising, firstly, that roads are inherently unsafe places, and secondly, that human beings are capable of making mistakes and don’t always follow the rules.

There are about a thousand road deaths a year in Holland now, but, says the SWOV, “The average Dutchman does not really seem to care about all these anonymous deaths: road crashes are simply a part of life. The chance of being killed in a road crash seems too abstract for him to worry about.” Of course, it’s an entirely different story for the individuals who are directly affected by these incidents. “Only then do we wonder how this could have happened, and ask if and how it might have been prevented. But what are the answers?

The Dutch have identified five principles that lead to sustainably safe road traffic:

  1. Functionality of road
  2. Homogeneity of masses and / or speed and direction of road user
  3. Predictability of road course and road user behaviour
  4. Forgivingness of the environment and of road users
  5. Self-Awareness of the road user

Peckham High Street. Plans to make it into a conservation area have recently been approved, and CS5 is due to open next year, but is there enough space here for segregated cycling facilities?

The first principle of Sustainable Safety demands that traffic functions should not be mixed. Keeping them separate can sometimes be difficult, particularly on roads like the one above, where there are shops and restaurants and houses and people and so on in close proximity to heavy traffic, and not always very much in the way of available space.

Still, the Dutch have shown, by their experiment, that by advancing confidently in the direction of their dreams, they have been able to meet with a success unexpected in daylight hours. What one nation says cannot be done, they have tried and found that it can be done. This said, even with all the will in the world, Sustainable Safety doesn’t come cheap. As the SWOV have noted, with more than a little dryness, financing road safety measures “is a matter that continues to require attention.” The bottom line is that many billions of Euros are needed to implement Sustainable Safety, and even if this is done gradually over 20 to 30 years, large annual amounts are still required.

The first step

It is money well spent, however. Danish research has shown that, in the built-up area, for every mile driven society loses something like 30 pence, whereas for every mile ridden society gains something like 20 pence. No surprise then that the Danes invest the equivalent of £40 per person per year in improving their cycle infrastructure. As the LCC’s Go Dutch advocate explained: “You won’t get a cycle revolution for free. You do have to spend money on getting high quality infrastructure that is good enough to get a large proportion of the population cycling.”

Here in the UK we are currently spending less than £1 per person per year improving our cycle infrastructure. Whilst there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we should be spending considerably more, I do rather think that, before we start throwing money about the place, we ought to do some groundwork first. TfL have recently confirmed that they are “adopting best practice from other European countries”, and that being the case, I would like to explain how these cycling nations set about creating an amenable cycling environment in the first place. To this end I will be relying heavily on a seminal publication entitled Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities.

“The essential thing,” said Ritt Bjerregaard in the foreword to this work, “is to take the first step.” (Dr Schumacher says pretty much the same thing, though in another context, in his foreword: “It is the essence of self-reliance that you start now.”) Given that Boris Johnson has already made a commitment to Go Dutch, what can we reasonably expect from him over the next four years?

The good news is that quite a few boxes can already be ticked. In the chapter entitled ‘How to Begin?’, Cycling: the way ahead kicks off by asking, “If only one thing were needed to start, or to progress more rapidly, what would it be?” For them, “The most crucial omission is often that of a cycling representative or cycling coordinator.” To his credit the Mayor is already on to this. At a hustings event just before the elections hosted jointly by The Times and Sustrans, Boris Johnson “talked about the creation of a ‘cycling commisioner’ and about cycling being represented on his proposed London Roads Taskforce” (here, reported by Cyclists in the City).

“It will be the task of this coordinator to remind everybody of the implications of cycling,” explains Cycling: the way ahead, “and to act as a resource person at all levels of the municipality (policy formulation, decision-making, execution and monitoring) … All projects should be submitted to the coordinator as a matter of course, and his or her approval should be made compulsory for all projects in the areas of town planning, transport and public works.”

Thinking in terms of a network

Sustrans have already confirmed that they are “fully committed to a cycle network for London.” The London Cycling Campaign have said, “The everyday journeys we know many Londoners would like to make by bike need to be continuous, unobstructed, and built into a network.” The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain have opined that unless we start to think in terms of a network, instead of piecemeal solutions, the bicycle will continue not to be taken seriously as a mode of transport. The European Cycling Federation have claimed that the development of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network is “a basic precondition” of extended cycle use. Cyclists in the City have made the point that “people will only start using the bicycle when they get proper bicycle networks.” Dave Horton, the author of Understanding Cycling and Walking, regards a dense physical network of cycle-friendly routes as “absolutely vital”, and Steve Norris, the former Minister of Transport who oversaw the launch of the London Cycle Network nearly twenty years ago, has recently suggested that an extensive and interconnected network of safe routes would be “a valuable part of a delivery strategy to encourage more cycling.”

There are two ways to approach the development of a cycle network. One way proceeds by analysing situations (that is, the type of roadway, level of traffic, frequency of accidents, proximity of facilities, etc), and building from the bottom-up. This so-called Adjustment policy is, somewhat curiously, the approach being promoted by the London Cycling Campaign.

As far as it goes, this work is very necessary (in particular here I am thinking of TfL’s review of the top 100 priority junctions). However,it is possible to “go much further than this strictly pragmatic and ad hoc approach”, and if I might be allowed a metaphor here, basically what you need to do is look through the other end of the telescope. That is, approach the development of the cycling environment from the top-down, by analysing journeys (origin / destination). This would then provide you with a strategic overview, enabling you to see ‘the bigger picture’, and from here you can then plan the network that would provide for these journeys. This ‘global’ approach is known as the Voluntarist policy.

Ideally, Cycling: the way ahead suggests, such a network should be designed for beginners and hesitant cyclists as a priority. It may therefore “comfortably include” small detours which are inaccessible to heavy vehicles.

The London Cycle Network

Dave Horton told me recently that, to a large extent, “We’ve got to work with what we’ve got.” What we’ve got in London is lots and lots of quiet back streets, and making the best use of these is something which works very well in Montreal, for example, where, according to Cyclists in the City, only 10% of the people who cycle regularly use the untreated main road network, whereas 87% use the quiet back streets.

The architects of the original London Cycle Network also placed a heavy emphasis on quiet back street routes, but their strategy fell down, not because of this, as some commentators have claimed—”cyclists do not belong on the back streets any more than motorists do”—but because of what Paul Gasson of Camden Cyclists has described as a “blind adherence to procedural bureaucracy instead of common sense”.

The long and short of things back then was that a section of route could not be waymarked until it had been through the design / consult / build process. Famously, a 1.5km section of the LCN in West Hampstead, which was intended to have a segregated cycle track along its full length, ended up comprising ten metres of advisory cycle lane and a three metre section of mandatory lane in the centre of the road to help cyclists negotiate a junction after the council decided it was too difficult to remove car parking for residents and businesses.

This was in 1998, which meant that, in this instance, on a one-and-a-half kilometre section of the LCN, cyclists had to wait four years just to get 13 metres of ‘cycle infrastructure’. The important point, however, is that only then, once the route had been ‘built’, could it be signed.

This procedural mindset, if I can call it that, resulted in a network which was full of holes, and this meant it never was any use at a strategic level. This is significant. As Matthias Doepke from Northwestern University has pointed out: “Once there is a connected network, the attractiveness of cycling goes up a lot.”

Keeping this in mind, and remembering that that the planning process can often prove to be somewhat anesthetising, Cycling: the way ahead recommends introducing the network by developing it to a minimum level of functioning first. This, they say, is “a prudent course to follow”.

The key with this type of approach, as before said, is sustained investment. But first things first. When the World Service was launched in 1932, for example, John (later Lord) Reith broadcast the following message: “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. This occasion is as significant as any in the ten years of British broadcasting. From today, programmes will be broadcast regularly from the Empire Station [as it was then called]. Don’t expect too much in the early days, however. The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.”

On the right track? An example of a route functioning at a minimum level. (Photo:

The important thing for the BBC back then was that the broadcasting network was set up and made to work. The quality could come afterwards (very soon afterwards, if you are able). Indeed, the Dutch and the Danes developed their cycle networks along similar lines. In their case, as more people took to cycling, certain back street routes ended up giving way to main road alternatives, making the invitation to cycle even stronger. (See also this article on how the Americans set about developing their rail network.)

The idea with accepting a minimum level of functioning as a first step is that one can cut through a whole load of red tape, and thereby liberate Cycling Officers from the stifling constraints imposed by the planning process. The network can therefore be established relatively quickly and relatively cheaply. In taking this step, the cycling environment would be made safer, if only just a little bit perhaps, but soon. “It is simply immoral not to recognise this.

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